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Pearl Hill fire
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Bridgeport residents collecting donations to help those impacted by Pearl Hill Fire

Flames from the Cold Springs Canyon Pearl Hill wildfire encroach on Wells Dam, Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, near Azwell, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review via AP)

Wildfires are devastating, but unless you live in the area that’s burning, it can be difficult to understand how desperate the situation is right now in Washington. In Douglas County, the Pearl Hill Fire is burning an area nearly 3.5 times the size of the entire city of Seattle.

Washington remains ‘tragically short’ on resources to battle fires

On the banks of the Columbia River in Bridgeport, many have been evacuated and a number of homes were burned after the blaze encircled the town on three sides. Yavonne Polvos, a Bridgeport resident, had to evacuate her home and is now leading an effort to help those impacted by the fires. She described the scene of the fires in Bridgeport to KIRO Radio’s Gee & Ursula Show.

“In the town of Bridgeport, we got a Level 2 evacuation notice the day after the fire started, early afternoon,” she recalled. “By the evening time, we were on Level 3, which is get your important stuff and get out of town. You may not have any more notice after that, and you’re kind of on your own because resources get very limited as far as who’s fighting the fire. People just can’t go knocking around on doors and telling people it’s on its way.”

Polvos worked with the Carlton Complex Fire in 2014, and was a core member of that group, so she has some experience with wildfires.

“We have hillsides on all of our town, so you’re literally looking at fires, cresting hills coming to you,” she said. “A lot of our total losses, … that’s what we refer to as somebody who has lost everything in the fire, most of our losses are on one side of the town. It didn’t really hit into the middle of town, but we also had it affect our wastewater plant as well as all of our power.”

The entire town, she says, was without power for three days. The water is back on now, but it is not safe to drink.

“Everybody is living off of bottled water for everything,” Polvos said.

Her advice is if you know wildfires are coming, get your important stuff packed.

“Be ready to go. Fires move quickly,” she said. “You can see it on the top of a hill and think you’re still fine, and within 40 minutes, that fire will be at the bottom of the hill.”

“You never know when a wildfire around here is going to happen. Have a prepared list ready to go,” she said. “I need birth certificates, I need certain photos, whatever your family finds important. If you have a newborn, make sure you have a way to feed that child for days. It might be days before you get any help at all.”

When Bridgeport received a Level 2 evacuation notice, she says her family loaded everything that was important to them, except for last-minute items, into their trailer. They then made a new list of what they still had left to grab so they’d be ready when a Level 3 notice was issued.

“When we got the Level 3 notice, the fire was cresting the hill,” she said. “Within half an hour of us grabbing the last of our stuff, getting our animals and our children loaded, and pulling out, it was about a half hour, and that fire was at the bottom of the hill and we had to drive by it in order to get out of town.”

Now, Polvos says the town looks like an apocalypse with every hillside, every direction you look, scorched.

The Pearl Hill Fire, she explained, started in Okanogan, made its way down the Columbia, circled around the Chief Joe Dam, and impacted Mansfield first.

“Mansfield is a very, very tiny town with very limited resources, but amazing people, just like here in Bridgeport,” she said. “Mansfield did not have any total losses. … All of those people are coming down here to help us because they know where we’re most affected.”

Gov. Inslee visited Bridgeport on Saturday.

How to help Bridgeport

Polvos says the locals have put out specific requests for donations, including water, protein bars, beef jerky, toilet paper, and cleaning products.

“Even our people who did not lose houses had smoke,” she said. “I mean, you couldn’t see across town from all the smoke. So when people left, they’re still coming back to homes that you have to wipe everything down. No power. Everything in your fridge and freezer is gone, so everybody is affected in one way or another.”

There’s a local church where they’re feeding people two meals a day, including a sack lunch. A church group from Tonasket came by to serve 225 people for dinner with sandwiches and dessert.

“We’re doing meals twice a day, for up to a week,” she said. “We basically are accepting any donation people want to give it this point, other than clothing.”

In Bridgeport, there were 17 total losses, and Polvos said that only includes what’s in town, not orchard worker camps or anyone who lives on the hillsides out of town.

For those who want to help, visit Yavonne’s Facebook page here. She’s keeping all her posts about the fires public. As far as sending things, she says gift cards are great as the lists of what they need are constantly changing. If you do try to contact her directly, she asks for patience as she’s receiving a lot of messages.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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